When Men Are the Victims of Domestic Violence

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Photo by mrhayata via Flickr

On February 25, the actress Heather Locklear was involved in a domestic violence incident. Sadly, such incidents are not uncommon. What makes this case unusual—aside from Locklear’s celebrity—is that she was the attacker, not the victim.

The person she allegedly attacked was her boyfriend.

Locklear was arrested and charged with one felony count of domestic battery for allegedly assaulting Chris Heisser. Although that charge was later dropped, Locklear still faces charges of resisting arrest for fighting with the officers who tried to arrest her.

The stereotypical case of domestic violence involves a husband or boyfriend who assaults his wife or girlfriend. Most cases of domestic violence do fall within that paradigm. In more cases than you may realize, however, it is the men who are the victims.

Here are some relevant facts from the Centers on Disease Control and Prevention’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: 2015 Data Brief:

  • About one in three (33.3 percent or 37.2 million) US men experienced contact sexual violence, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner during their lifetime;
  • As to specific subtypes of intimate partner violence, 8.2 percent of US men experienced contact sexual violence, 31 percent experienced physical violence (with 14.9 percent experiencing severe physical violence) and 2.2 percent experienced stalking during their lifetime; and
  • Over one-third of US men (34.3 percent or 38.4 million) experienced psychological aggression by an intimate partner during their lifetime.

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, while most of the perpetrators of sexual violence and stalking were predominantly male, perpetrators of the other forms of violence against males were mostly female.

The victims of domestic violence, male and female, share many commonalities. They may blame themselves and make excuses for their partners’ behavior. They are often ashamed and embarrassed to be in an abusive relationship. They may be afraid to seek help and be unaware of the resources available to assist them. And unfortunately, they may wind up being killed by their abusers.

In May 1998, comedic actor Phil Hartman was shot to death while he slept by his wife Brynn, who then killed herself. Friends of the couple described Brynn as extremely jealous and having a “mercurial temper.” Hartman even showed up to the set of “NewsRadio” with scratches on his face from her.

Even when men do call the police on an abusive partner, much like abused women, they may be reluctant to see their partners actually arrested.

That’s what happened after professional golfer Lucas Glover was attacked by his wife Krista for missing the cut at the Players Championship in May 2018.

Although he and his mother both had fresh lacerations after the altercation with Krista, Glover tried to convince the sheriff’s deputies not to arrest her. But the deputies did so anyway, charging her with domestic battery and resisting arrest.

According to the police report, Glover said that “when he plays a bad round of golf, Krista proceeds to start an altercation with him and telling him how he is a loser and a p‑‑‑y, how he needs to fire everyone, and how he’d better win, or her and the kids would leave him and he would never see the kids again.”

Lastly, like some abused women, abused men may eventually snap and strike back at their abusers.

For example, Dennis Long, a British man, fatally stabbed Judith Scott, his partner of 30 years, who had verbally and physically abused him throughout their relationship. She had struck Long with a poker and even broken his thumb; she had also called him a “pansy” and a “poof.”

In October 2010, Long was sentenced to more than four years in jail for manslaughter. At sentencing, the judge said the killing had “to be seen against a background of 30 years’ severe conduct by [Scott] and some physical abuse as well.”

If domestic violence is under-reported by abused women, imagine how difficult it may be for abused men to come forward.

Our society still clings to stereotypes of men as being macho, strong and able to take care of themselves. As a result, the image of a woman yelling at, hitting or beating her man may strike many people as comical. After all, the figure of a “henpecked husband” is typically met with laughs, while the abused wife is seen as a tragic figure.

Eline Van der Velden, a Dutch actress, writer and producer, stars in the BBC Three series “Putting It Out There,” where she challenges social perceptions. In October 2017, she and Will, a male actor, staged a social experiment in a park in London, in which Will threatened to abuse Van der Velden.

Then they switched roles. They used the same words and body language, and continued for the same amount of time in the same place.

When Will was shouting and threatening to hit Van der Velden, barely a few seconds passed before someone stopped to help her. Over 90 minutes, a total of seven people came over to ask if there was anything they could do.

But when Van der Velden was screaming at Will, only one person stopped in 90 minutes. Moreover, some teenage boys started taking photos and posting them on Snapchat. They were laughing, saying, “Look at him getting beaten up.”

As Van der Velden said, “It was amusing to them that a woman was abusing a man.”

Is it any wonder then that many victimized men may feel like they would get no sympathy, support, or help if they admitted that their wives or girlfriends physically abused them?

The humiliation of being victimized by a woman may make men feel like less manly, which is only reinforced if their confessions of abuse are met with laughter, ridicule, and derision, especially by other men.

For instance, when the judge sentenced Dennis Long, he described Long as “a placid, unassertive, rather weak man”—exactly the kind of disdain male victims of domestic violence may fear when they come forward.

For gay men, acknowledging abuse by a partner may be just as difficult. In addition to the “usual” reasons for staying mum about domestic violence, abused gay men may worry that disclosing abuse sullies a community that already faces undue scrutiny and criticism.

Victimized gay men also may not have strong ties with family due to their sexuality and thus may not have adequate support networks in place to help them get out of and recover from abusive relationships.

Plus, men—gay and straight—may fear that law enforcement won’t take their complaints seriously, or that they’ll end up being arrested themselves.

For example, a former Army Ranger named Michael used a GoPro strapped to his belt to catch his estranged wife’s abuse of him on video. Footage from the camera appeared to show her aggressively grabbing his genitals as he reached into the car to unbuckle one of his sons.

She then threatened to say Michael had assaulted her if he called police. Instead, the video resulted in her arrest for domestic battery.

“This is just one of many instances where I’ve had to use the camera to either prove her guilt or prove my innocence and that’s the only reason I am carrying it,” Michael told a Cleveland TV station. He hoped that the video would validate his claims, adding that “it seems to be overlooked when the man is a victim of domestic violence.”

Michael’s experience is not unique. Dr. Jessica McCarrick, a Senior Lecturer in Counselling Psychology and Chartered Psychologist at Teesside University in the United Kingdom, conducted a study on male victims of intimate partner violence.

Dr. McCarrick carried out interviews with abused men who said that, in addition to the trauma of domestic abuse, their negative experiences were compounded within the criminal justice system by being treated like the guilty party or feeling dismissed by the police. Victims reported being arrested based on false counterclaims made by their partners—even when there was evidence that the men were, in fact, the victims, the police didn’t take the allegations seriously.

Part of the problem is that men may not realize that they’re in abusive relationships because the issue of domestic violence has historically been framed as one in which women are the victims.

As a result of the focus on female victims, male victims may be less likely to reach out to support groups and the like for help, believing that those resources are only available to women.

However, domestic violence hotlines, shelters, etc. will generally help all victims, regardless of gender. Moreover, specialized resources for abused men are becoming for common.

For example, a handful of shelters specifically for male victims of domestic violence have opened in Texas and Arkansas. Such shelters provide a safe place for abused men to be vulnerable and honest about their emotions without fear of recrimination, scorn or disbelief.

In addition, more agencies and groups are making an effort to acknowledge male victims of domestic violence and encourage such victims to reach out for help.

For example, in Australia—which has been described as having a culture of toxic masculinity— a group of male and female academics, researchers, social workers, psychologists, counsellors, lawyers, health promotion workers, trainers and survivors/advocates launched the “One in Three Campaign.”

Based on the statistic that one in three victims of domestic violence in that country is male, the campaign’s goal is, among other things, to raise public awareness of the existence and needs of male victims of family violence and abuse.

So, how do we as a society address domestic violence against men?

I’m certainly not arguing that the focus of anti-domestic violence efforts be shifted from female to male victims. Given that women make up the vast majority of domestic abuse victims, it’s reasonable for groups to focus their efforts and resources on them. But we cannot ignore the thousands of male victims who also need our support and help.

To that end, government agencies, law enforcement, hotlines, support groups, shelters and the like need to ensure that their efforts to protect women don’t inadvertently make male victims feel unprotected and unwelcome.

Efforts also need to be made to educate men on the simple fact that yes, they too can be the victims of domestic violence at the hands of their supposed loved ones.

People in general need to make men feel comfortable acknowledging the abuse and asking for help. And we need to get over our own preconceptions of men and women and offer help to the men who we think may need it.

As one man told Van der Velden in her social experiment for TV, “I thought [Will] looked soft. I felt bad thinking that. But I had the classic thing in my head of, ‘I wouldn’t let a girl hit me.’ That’s terrible – why would I think that?”

If we continue to see men only as aggressors and women only as victims, we will continue to ignore the complex dynamics at play in many relationships that can result in men suffering mental abuse and violence.

Robin Barton

Robin L. Barton

To quote Dr. McCarrick, “Intimate partner violence should be viewed as a human issue rather than a gender issue.”

Robin L. Barton, a legal journalist based in Brooklyn, NY, is a former assistant district attorney in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and a regular blogger for The Crime Report. She welcomes readers’ comments.

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